DTZ's Francis Li feels bullish about the China property market

Francis Li watched rivals make money as he built up DTZ's business over the border. Now he's feeling sweet while HK-rooted agents sweat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 5:06am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 12:31pm

The DTZ North Asia investment team headed by Francis Li has brokered property deals on the mainland valued at some 18 billion yuan (HK$22.8 billion) since the beginning of the year, the most since the company was established in 1993.

By comparison in Hong Kong the total value of transactions worth HK$100 million or more completed in the first half of this year amounted to HK$20 billion, Li said in an interview in his office on the 16th floor of Jardine House in Central.

"While other property consultants worry about their businesses since the Hong Kong market is slow, we don't," said Li.

Transaction volumes in Hong Kong fell further in the third quarter because of the government's measures to cool down the property market, which have substantially increased transaction costs - a major concern for investors.

DTZ's own data show the total value of 27 deals completed in the third quarter amounted to HK$7.52 billion, down 42.5 per cent from HK$13.11 billion in the second quarter.

Commission from the sale of three commercial properties, in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai, by Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Hutchison Whampoa - both controlled by Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing - has made a big contribution to DTZ's earnings this year.

The three properties sold for a total of 12.8 billion yuan.

Of the three deals, the most eye-catching, said DTZ's Li, was helping Cheung Kong and Hutchison sell The Oriental Financial Center in Shanghai's Lujiazui district for about HK$9 billion this month.

"It was the biggest-ever en-bloc sale in China," said Li, and the deal - from looking for buyers and discussion about prices to setting the contract's terms and conditions - took a very long time.

"After hours and hours of discussion well into the night, the deal was signed at 5.30 in the morning," Li recalled. Instead of feeling happy when it was concluded, he jested, he just felt "faint".

Li said the good result the company reaped was attributable to the long-term China plan formulated by his former boss, now the city's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

In 1993 Li followed Leung in leaving the Hong Kong office of Jones Lang Wootton, and joined Leung's firm C Y Leung & Company, which was later renamed DTZ after restructurings and share swaps.

The company entered the mainland property market 20 years ago, and entered the investment market there in 2005, when the Hong Kong property market rebounded after the crisis triggered by the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.

"We sacrificed time and money creating opportunities in the mainland investment market as we saw the trend. The mainland market was huge," said Li.

In the beginning, he said about 10 per cent of the firm's income came from the mainland and 90 per cent from Hong Kong. "Now we see HK$90 of every HK$100 in income derived from China," he said.

But those were not easy days.

"We accumulated our contacts and clients bit by bit by flying to property expos overseas every year," he recalled. "At that time, we saw peers making a lot of money and we felt sour.

"But now, we feel sweet," Li said with a satisfied smile.